We often hear people in the publishing industry talk about backlist vs. frontlist. Today I want to talk about the value of the backlist in building an author’s career..
First a couple of definitions. The terms, backlist and frontlist came from the “olden days” when publishers relied on slick catalogs to sell books to bookstores. Remember those days before websites? Here’s an easy way to think about these:
- Frontlist refers to the books at the front of publishers’ catalogs– those books that are just releasing. The hot new books and important books are frontlist titles. These are the ones the sales team will feature at a trade show or during a visit to buyers.
- Backlist refers to the books that used to populate the front but now are relegated to the back of those same catalogs– the books that were from past seasons. Generally these books get little to no marketing dollars.
Before online bookstores it was near impossible for a reader to find books from years past. Stores simply did not have the shelf space to stock all the titles from an author– even a bestselling author. If you discovered a writer you liked and wanted to read his entire oeuvre, you would need to haunt used bookstores, libraries and yard sales. It was a daunting task. Now it’s easy, especially if you read ebooks.
When we’re talking about backlist we’re not talking about mass market books, like general market romances. Those are on the shelves for a specified span of time and then, if they don’t sell, the store tears off the cover, recycles the rest of the book and returns those covers to the publisher for full credit. Sometimes these can be found in used bookstores but by and large, finding a complete backlist from a favorite mass market author would be difficult, even in these days.
We’re talking about trade books. In the past, the author’s royalties came primarily from their newest frontlist book. It’s different now. Readers are finding a writer they love and backtracking–reading through that writer’s backlist– instead of trying another writer’s frontlist book. I find I’m doing that almost exclusively now that the writer’s whole list is available to me. For instance, for my recreational reading, I’m an avid Louise Penny fan. (Just read her new release this week— superb!) I anxiously await her newest book each September. When I first found her, I backtracked and read every book she’s written, in order. Since she writes stories with the same ensemble of characters a reader would miss so much in not seeing how the characters grow and develop. Because I read the ebook and listen to the audio at the same time, and since I just finished book number sixteen, I’ve spent about $400.00 on this author alone. (Yikes! I never should have added it up.) That probably amounts to a nice little pile of royalty dollars for the author from the combination of backlist and frontlist.
Here’s where backlist begins to make a real difference in an author’s career:
- When a novelist stays with the same main character for a long time and readers come to love that character. (Think: Sue Grafton and her 25 “alphabet” books featuring Kinsey Millhone. That’s some backlist.)
- When readers find an author they love, series or not. We have many Books & Such novelists who write standalone books but their backlist sales are vigorous because once the reader finds them, they can’t get enough.
- When a reader discovers a nonfiction author who is wise and wonderful, and that reader becomes an avid collector of his or her books, finding and devouring the entire backlist.
- When a reader finds an author who writes book after book on the same subject, a subject the reader is passionate about, he will make sure the entire backlist is on his shelf.
The good thing for trade book authors is that there really is no more “frontlist” and “backlist.” It used to be that your book was on the bookstore shelves while it was new and then it was consigned to oblivion. Now– with unlimited virtual bookshelf space– if a reader clicks on your name, all your books are usually available as ebooks, if not print books. This means the possibility of a steady flow of income for the writer.
So, as you plan your career, be diligent to keep writing, one book after another. You will be building up that whole list– front and back.
Question: How do you read? Scattershot? One author, no matter what he writes? Through an entire series from number one on, or from A – Z? (Or A – Y in the case of Sue Grafton.) Or do you stick with one subject from one author through many books?
I read the back list, too. For me, it’s how they write even more than the characters, although if the characters are in the net book, that’s a bonus.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Hmmm … how do I read? I rely mainly on recommendations from those close to me whose opinion I trust. I try out various books based on these readers and if an author truly grabs me, then I will read their backlist. I tend to decide with each book by that author by reading the backcopy and seeing if that particular book interests me. But with highly trusted and/or enthusiastic readers (my 3 sons) I will just read everything by their favorite author if they happen to be so excited that they nag me regularly or check up on my progress through their author’s backlist, ha!
How wonderful that you have three sons who are enthusiastic readers. Statistically, that’s a rarity.
Kristen Joy Wilks
That’s what I hear. But we read out loud since they were babies, I had the honor of teaching them all to read in pre-school, and at night before bed they had the option of going to sleep … or reading for a half hour. It must have helped, because they devour books. Something that they also seem to defy statistically is having to read about a boy protagonist. I never really noticed until it was pointed out to me a few years ago that boys don’t read girl protagonists. Not true! I exclaimed. They enjoy a strong female protagonist, especially if she is snarky, inventing something explosive, fighting aliens, or wielding a weapon with both skill and beauty and sarcasm! I’m not sure why most boys don’t also love these heroines … but mine do.
One of my sons definitely broadened my reading list–as I influenced his. The practice was a big help in his teen years. When he otherwise argued with me over every little thing, we could peacefully disagree (or even agree!) over books we both read. Thanks, Kristen, for reminding me.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! They are the best and it is such a good way to connect!!!
Katherine Talbert Phillips
Very enjoyable blog. I also like to read the books of a new-to-me favorite author in the order written. I like to see the progression of the person’s writing style.
Great questions, Wendy.
If possible, I like to read a series from the beginning. I did that with Left Behind. Sometimes, I come into a series in the middle and have to go back and forward, but it seems I don’t always get to all the previous ones unless life is suddenly less busy. For nonfiction, I’m usually a one and done author because I choose by topic. Unless it is someone who really engages me, like Kathi Macias, I don’t usually read more than one nonfiction title by the same author.
Happy Monday! I pray all is well.
Backlist can be a problem, though…after reading Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series, I was delighted to find that she had some earlier books…and horrified at how bad they were, bad enough to leave a bitter taste that I retained when re-reading Starbridge, and seeing the connexions to the earlier stuff.
This is an almost impossible subject or a sonnet, but what the heck.
A large-oeuvre-ed author
can be a reader’s blessing
if one just takes the bother
to find what one was missing.
But backlist can be awkward,
for muse did not shine bright,
many words were writ toward
goal of learning how to write.
So now I delve with caution
into that history,
for reading something rotten
can make a mystery
of how a dull prosaic hack
could from such abyss come back.
So true, Andrew. I mentioned Louise Penny. A number of reviewers have said it wasn’t until her fourth book (with a new editor) that she really came alive. If I had time, I’d go back and reread to see if that were true. But, alas. . .
Wendy, even the irst books of my favourite author, Nevil Shute, were simply atrocious. But around 1940 he had something of a ‘sea change’; it was as if he’d stepped from a chrysalis and spread rainbow-butterfly wings. There was nothing of the potboiler after that; an artist was born.
My girls said the same of J.K. Rowling. They could tell that she’d grown as a writer throughout the series. But, wow, what a series! Good or bad, growth is part of the process, it seems, if we keep striving. I wonder if the authors ever wish to revise those older versions. Or if they refuse to read them. 🙂 The growth could make the revisit bittersweet.
If I know it is a series I like to start at the beginning and go in order. Some older stuff has me scouring used bookstores, the library and everywhere to fill in the gaps. Even authors without continuing characters are interesting to read in order of publication. I like to see how people grow into their own unique style.
Janet Holm McHenry
After I read my first Mitford book, I read everything else in that series Jan Karon had written . . . then could hardly wait for the new ones to be released. Some weeks I drove an hour to Reno to the bookstore to get a couple more. I passed them along to my mother, my sister, and my friend–and the soft covers literally fell off. I lucked upon hardcover copies in a bookstore at Mission Springs Conference Center (near Mt. Hermon) when I spoke there one time for, get this. TWO dollars apiece. They are the only fiction I keep, and while Karon says she’s done with that series, I’ll probably read whatever else she writes. I just like quirky, small-town characters, because I live among such people.
I have my favorite authors. When I found Laura Frantz and Becky Wade, I devoured all their older works, gladly paying full price … worth every penny. I like taking pictures of older works and sharing them with my Instagram audience. I enjoyed Laura’s older novel The Colonel’s Lady. Laura said that I’d given TCL a little TLC. And that just blessed me.
If researching or reading a series, then I stick to the subject or author. For everyday reading I love variety because it stretches the imagination and keeps things interesting. I read various authors, various genres, fiction, and/or non-fiction.
Great article with information many folks don’t know. Love being able to keep our books in print these days!